The prospect of working in a law firm was fairly intimidating. My life had always been a fringe festival of sorts. My community was filled with people who were doing edgy stuff, people who were doing a lot of drugs, and people who were otherwise just creating their own paradigm. By contrast, I'd just trained for three years and paid tens of thousands of dollars to work in some one else's paradigm. I'd never made more than $18,000 in a year (and often less). Plus, I had tattoos. I was skydiving out of my element.
I'd imagined law firms like this one - occupying three floors way up high in a downtown office building with views that you pay for - to be filled with uptight white men in tailored suits and serious, ambitious women, all of whom lived in a self-contained corporate world that involved stores that I never went to, private schools I'd never afford, operas I never saw, and otherwise was just totally different. What I found was something much more diverse. Sure, there was a smattering of ethnic diversity, but the more shocking thing was that there was much more diversity of lifestyle than I'd imagined. Hobbies, the professions of spouses, the details of peoples lives, all differentiated them from one another. Perhaps it was totally bigoted of me to think otherwise, but the fact that some of these high falutin' lawyers were people I might meet in some other walk of life - or other walk of my life at least - surprised me.
As I got over my initial shock that some lawyers are not white, and don't wear brooks brothers suits, and have spouses who work in bookstores, and all that, I began to notice that secretly, quietly, and discretely, most of my colleagues were actually pretty thoughtful and progressive. Obviously they weren't so progressive that they refused to be whores to corporate interests and renounced other trappings of capitalist success, but then again neither was I. However, across the board they were not racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anything other than reasonable, open-hearted, and open-minded. As I got to know people and we spoke honestly with one another, I experienced very few instances in which a colleague's political views were inconsistent with mine. And I've been advocating for legalized marijuana for decades now.
Before I got an accurate idea of who I worked with, I certainly felt like an impostor much of the time. I half expected the managing partner to open my office door, find me reading a rural-escape-fanstasy blog, and tell my punk rock ass to beat it 'cause they always knew I was a freak who just sneaked past security. As I got to know my colleagues and learned that their professional lives did not determine their personal lives (just like me!) I wondered what kept me from seeing this to begin with.
Law firm culture seemed to involve some sort of tacit agreement that we would all appear more conservative than we were. Somehow, the unspoken rules said, if someone - a CLIENT - is more conservative than you are, and they find out that you are more progressive and don't agree with their narrower notions, you will offend them. They will not want to work with us. It is an inappropriate imposition of your personal life and views into a service industry position.
I came to think of these unspoken rules as the 'cult of conservatism.' I'm not sure that really says what I meant - but the "cult" reference did get at the brainwashing quality of it: we believed - and didn't even really question - this rule that kept us from acknowledging our differences and expressing our individuality.
Ultimately, and despite my fantastic colleagues, I decided that I would probably not make partner and law firm life was not for me in the long term. I did make it through seven years, enjoying two paid maternity leaves, and an invaluable time with my professional mentor. And somewhere during my time there I came out.
I can't remember exactly when it was that I first walked around the office with my tattoos exposed. I vaguely remember coming home and telling my husband that I walked around the office in my sleeveless dress, leaving my cardigan on my office chair. Probably I just went to the bathroom, which was literally 25 feet from my office. But, bit by bit, I proudly stopped hiding the decorations on my arms. I never met with clients that way, and I didn't go into my annual review with said managing partner that way, and it was a long time before I sat in a colleague's office that way discussing a case. But eventually I did. And I don't shave my armpits either.
Coming out for me, as someone with sizable though not huge tattoos on her arms, may have been facilitated by the fact that I was not wholly committed to making my career at this law firm. There is, for sure, that punk rock part of me that indulged in the fantasy of getting fired for showing my tattoos. It would have been so easy to get righteous, give everyone the finger, and have some excuse not to have to work so hard.
But no one cared! Remember, these people were all way cool. Totally fine. Even tattooed themselves. Secretly. And while I might have surprised them, being so open and out, they really didn't give a shit.
I've been thinking a lot about these related experiences - becoming aware of this cult of conservatism and coming out as a freak in the face of it - after Jason Collins came out, and as we all wait for the SCOTUS to announce decisions on marriage equality and equal treatment under federal law for same-sex couples.
Society's rate of change around homosexuality and marriage equality is kind of freaky. I'm not complaining - AT ALL - but this shit is moving fast, so much faster than any of us would have predicted before, even just a few years ago. I know that all sorts of studies and other wisdom - conventional and unconventional - show or posit that as we are exposed to the other, as we experience diversity first hand, our beliefs change and we become more accepting of differences. So here we are, in the global village, in the age of communication, and no one can hide. No one can hide from the world wide lens and no one can hide in it. So we turn on the TV and go online and see lots of normal, happy gay people and two-mom families, and freaky republicans who have gay sex in highway rest stops, and we become much more comfortable with it all. We don't accept the untruths about those who have been demonized. And then some short time later we realize that we have nothing to fear if they get married.
All of this makes sense. But I can't help but feel as though society-at-large has had a coming out, too. That an increasing majority of society has the courage to speak from the heart. Instead of assuming that progressive opinions will offend others, and instead of pretending to be the person we think may be less offensive to others, we say - loud and proud - I really don't give a shit. I don't give a shit if I shower with a lesbian at the gym. I don't give a shit if this bear couple gets married. I really don't give a shit if my son's teacher is a tranny nightclub singer in his/her free time.
Regardless of what the Supreme Court has to say about equal treatment under the law, the tides are shifting. Speak up, bare your tattooed arms, be who you are. As your neighbor comes out, so can you feel more comfortable doing the same. We know it is contagious.